When I was 16 years old, I went on my first overseas trip. I went to Vietnam on a history study tour with my public high school, Albury High, for 14 days.
My family didn’t have a proper camera then because nobody was into photography. It wouldn’t be for another two or so years until I would have a proper digital camera, so my photos were taken on two cheap disposable cameras with plastic lenses. Each camera had 24 exposures on it, and one had black and white film and the other colour. I had barely taken any photos in my life before this trip. Now it’s unthinkable to me that I travelled for 14 days and only took 48 photos!! I would sometimes take up to 150 photos a day in Indonesia! These basic sorta-blurry photos almost make it look like I was over there 30 years ago instead of only 8.5 years ago!
The Vietnam trip was pretty remarkable for me. My family had never gone on any international travel. My dad had gallivanted around a little when he was in his teens on the scant money he earned from his odd jobs, but since then, nothing. In our small-ish “regional city”, back then we had two Chinese restaurants and newly opened Thai and Indian restaurants were pretty revolutionary. I’d never in my life tried Vietnamese cuisine and the population makeup of our town was far from being racially diverse. I’d also only been in a busy big city a couple of times in my life (but Australian “big” cities are obviously a far cry from Asia’s large cities, population wise).
At that stage of my youth, I thought I wanted to go to university in Albury and become a speech pathologist. I hadn’t really thought seriously about moving away to one of the more prestigious universities in the cities, though it was starting to tick away in the back of my mind.
I was honestly shit scared about going to Vietnam, even with my cool teachers and school friends, and at one point I almost thought about dropping out of the trip.
Sometimes, when I was on the road in Indonesia and even in Eastern Europe, I think about how lucky it was that I went…
I think about how, if I hadn’t gone to Vietnam and had such a positive experience there, then maybe I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do the travel I have done. Or I would at least have been quite a few years behind on getting started with it.
When I went to Vietnam, it really opened my eyes up to how much was out there in the world to see.
It also showed me that being a fat girl wouldn’t and shouldn’t stop me from doing anything out there either, even if it was a bit difficult. My teachers were really wonderful and encouraging. It really strengthened my confidence, even though I remember there were some teenage girl dramas as well during the trip.
I wrote religiously in a travel diary every night I was in Vietnam. I did the same when I backpacked New Zealand when I was 19, but by the time I went to Europe/UK when I was 20, I was all about blogging. And its hard to write in a travel diary when you have drunk too much beer.
I found a typed up version of my Vietnam travel log from 2002 here at home. I don’t want to lose it, because it’s kind of a nice reminder of how clueless I was… and how I had a propensity to overuse exclamation marks and the words ‘cute’ and ‘awesome’. !!!!!
So here are my 16 year old self’s Vietnam travel diaries. No need to read them, they aren’t that interesting or insightful, I’m mainly posting them for preservation for myself.
When I stepped off the plane into Vietnam I was excited, anxious, and in many ways apprehensive, as I had absolutely no idea what I was walking into.
The first thing that hit me was the heat, because I was coming from the start of Australian winter into the start of a tropical summer.
Going through the airport was rather intimidating because Vietnamese customs weren’t the most friendly people, and I had never been overseas or anything before so it was all really new.
When we walked out of the airport there was a huge crowd along two fences, and as we walked between them all the Vietnamese people pointed and laughed and talked to each other about us. We had no idea what they were saying and I felt very uncomfortable. Later on we realized it was just because they find foreigners fascinating, not because they don’t like us or anything, but at the airport I found it really intimidating, and I almost felt as if I was naked because of the way that the crowd were looking at us, a big group of 32 Australians (no wonder they were staring!).
When we got on the coach it was better because it was our turn to stare at what we found fascinating, the very very different surroundings of Vietnam. it was nothing like I had expected. The crazy traffic, the dirtiness, the dilapidated buildings, they way that they fit 4 people on to one motorcycle, everything.
We stopped in the centre of Saigon and took a walk to get money exchanged. We were bombarded by sellers, street children, beggers and onlookers. I found it really really intimidating, and my head was filling with doubts. Why did I come? I would hate it here! This isn’t an Ashlee place! How come everyone loves this country? How was I going to live here for two weeks?
It was a huge culture shock. Others seemed unaffected by it (some people seemed unaffected by everything for the entire trip, which was a little sad), others were really excited, others, like me, were just shocked.
Two hours later my opinion of the place had taken a total turn around.
We went back to our hotel, which was grogeous and really comfortable, had a nice shower and got dressed up. That made me feel a little better and more myself. We then went out and had a delicious Vietnamese dinner at a really nice restaurant, where the waiters were really friendly. We then drove around and looked at Saigon nightlife (it was Saturday night, every motorcycle had a girl and a guy on it!) which showed me that Saigon is similar to our big cities in many ways, and went back to our hotel.
By then I was excited to see what else Vietnam would show me, and couldn’t wait for my next experience to begin.
That was my first experience in Vietnam, and my first experience overseas. This place that is so different from home, and that scared me so much at first, now holds a special place in my heart.
On our second day in Vietnam we met up with our Vietnamese students. I had already contacted my student, Ngan, by email. It was great to meet her in person, she is so nice and speaks English really well.
We drove from Saigon to the Mekong Delta, learning a lot about our students and exchanging our culture and questions along the way, and boarded a large boat for a tour along the river. The Mekong River is huge, and very polluted. It is edged by dilapidated houses precariously balancing on stilts over the river.
We got off our large boat at an island and went for a walk through some jungle to the coconut candy factory. We then boarded a little motor boat for a tours through a jungle enclosed canal. The driver of our boat followed the rules of the road, meaning that he continually bumped in to other boats and plants and went all over the place. It was lots of fun, a little bit scary, but that made it better! We got off our little boats and ate a morning tea of Vietnamese fruits under a bananaleaf rooved hut. We then took out scary little boats back to the big boat. The big boat took us to Unicorn Island where we had a delicious Vietnamese lunch. Our students helped us to understand how to eat it, and enjoyed laughing at our lack of chopstick skills. At unicorn island we were taken on a relaxing row boat ride through another canal, which was very beautiful. We then boarded our big boat and went back to the port. On the bus back to Saigon we were treated to a very very funny Karaoke concert (the Vietnamese are totally obsessed with Karaoke!) by our Vietnamese students, and some very reluctant Aussies.
When we got back to Saigon we went out and had Pho Ga (Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup) for dinner.
It was a great day, and a really great way to feel more comfortable with the Vietnamese people. Our students were fantastic, it was great to meet them, we had so much fun with them!
On our third day in Vietnam we visited the school that our Vietnamese students attend, Le Hong Phong High School in Saigon. It is a very prestigious school, one of only three high schools in Vietnam for gifted students, and the pupils work very hard to gain a place at this school, and to stay there. It was a very beautiful school, built when the French occupied Vietnam. We met our students that we spent time with at the Delta, and also met many other students as we toured the school.
We then visited a temple in Saigon’s Chinatown and lit an incense spiral for good luck on our trip.
We then had some free shopping time in the centre of Saigon, which was very exciting. We made our first purchases, bartered for our first time (some more successfully than others) and went to a cafe for lunch, which quickly became out favourite cafe in Saigon, Ciao Cafe.
We visited the Museum of War Crimes. It was sickening, emotional, thought provoking and shocking. The Vietnamese people have been through so much, and it really made me appreciate the way they are today.
We then went on another boat trip (we spent so much time on boat trips, there is a lot of water in South East Asia) to a really nice tourist island, where we watched a dramatisation of a traditional Vietnamese wedding, complete with Vietnamese costumes, dance and music. We were offered rice wine. Yuck! it tasted exactly like I had always imagined that metholated spirits would taste like.
We then had a yummy Vietnamese dinner with two big cream birthday cakes, because it was Michael and Rebekah’s birthdays. Amanda and Scott were having a very funny chopstick eating competition, trying to see who was more masterful at controlling this new eating implement. After we had eaten a main meal the result was still undecided, so they ate bananas and cream cake totally with chopsticks to break the tie. The result was disputed though and no winner was decided!
We then drove back to our hotel, ending another full but fantastic day.
We took a very bumpy bus ride to the Cu Chi Tunnels, driving though Vietnamese farm land which was very interesting and beautiful. At the tunnels we were shown around and taught about the amazing way in which people lived and fought in the tunnels. Many people crawled through them, but there was no way I was going down there, and that sentiment was shared by a few other people as well!!! Just learning about the tunnels was amazing, and looking at them I have no idea how the people survived. The willpower that they must have had to live through that is amazing. The Viet Cong (and Viet Minh in the French War) were amzingly strategic.
We drove back to Saigon for a bit more shopping time, and lunch at Ciao Cafe.
That night we went out for dinner to a nice restaurant with our Vietnamese students. The food was great but the company was even better!!! We had a great time, and were treated to more karaoke, which resulted in all of us singing that Ronin Keating songs that I forget the name of (you know, the one off Notting Hill). Many of the Vietnamese girls had crushes on our Aussie guys, and that was really funny. It was sad to say goodbye to our students and leave them, and when we arrived back at the hotel the party continued on for a while, with some of the wilder Vietnamese students wanting to take us to a “DiscoTech” but eventually we all went to bed and all the students went home.
We were sad to leave behind Saigon, but as our plane flew over Nha Trang’s beautiful coastline our thoughts quickly turned to our new destination.
When we got off the plane we were pleased to find that the climate was much milder, and was a really nice temperature. We drove to our hotel, which was right on Nha Trang beach, with balconies overlooking the seascape, and a beautiful swimming pool. We didn’t waste any time in heading down to the bachside cafes for lunch, where we were bombarded by jewlery sellers, which the girls happily purchased off, while soaking up the beautiful beach surroundings. Many people went for a paddle in the ocean or a swim in the hotel’s pool.
The teachers dragged us away from the beach for a while and took us to a very beautiful pagoda, with a huge staute of Buddah on top of a hill. After that was went on a one hour cyclo ride around Nha Trang. We got a lot of strange looks from the locals, with our convoy of 30 Aussies in Cyclos, but it was heaps and heaps of fun!!!!
In the evening we returned to the beachfront for dinner, more bracelet bartering and shopping, and then many of us went for a swim in the hotel pool until it was time for bed.
After a pretty bad breakfast around the hotel pool we took the bus to the port and boarded a little boat for our cruise around the islands near Nha Trang. The ocean was beautiful and blue and the scenery was spectacular.
The boat stopped and we were allowed to go swimming in the South China Sea. Our fears about sharks and other nasties were washed away once we got into the beautiful blue water. Even the teachers got in, and some smart people had bought goggles so we could look at some of the sea life. We eventually reluctantly got back on the boat, and were taken to the island where we would have lunch. We got to the island via coracles, circular basket boats which were very scary to get into.
We were treated to a fresh seafood lunch at the island. After lunch we walked through the villiage to the other side of the island where our boat was waiting for us. As we walked through the villiage we attracted a lot of attention, especially from the children, who would stand in their doorways and stare, or wave, or say very unconfidentally “hello”. They were really cute. It was interesting to walk through the small village and see how the people there lived.
We caught our boat back to Nha Trang, and spent the afternoon lazing on the beach, and buying more jewelery.
We visited the Cham Towers pagoda.
For dinner we went to a barbeque restaurant, which was lots of fun. Between each group of 4 we got a small charcoal barbeque in the middle of our table and we had to cook our own meat. It was delicious and a lot more fun than just having dinner served up for you!
We then went to the train startion and boarded the very squished and not so comfortable overnight train to Danang. We were all very sad to leave Nha Trang behind because we had a fantastic time there, but we were once again excited to see what our next destination would bring.
After a bumpy and uncomfortable, but still fun, train ride to Danang we had breakfast and drove to Hoi An. Hoi An was a gorgeous city, with the population of Albury (it was much smaller though) and the character of Beechworth. It was my favourite place in Vietnam. It is a historical city, and we took a walking tour of many of the historical buildings there, which were really interesting. We also vistied a silk factory and saw silk being made. We had lunch at what was my favourite place in Vietnam for food, Li’s Cafe on the river. She made the best food I ate in Vietnam.
After lunch we went shopping. Hoi An is known as “Sewing Machine City” and there are so many tailors. I went to a tailor that Mr Overs recommended and got measured up for a red silk Asian dress and a pink cowl neck top. I was really happy with both those things and they were so cheap!!!! As well as lots of clothes and silk shops, Hoi An also had lots of shops selling lanterns, shoes and bags.
We then went to Li’s Cafe for dinner and ate the absolutely delicious Fish in Banana Leaf. Yum!!!! We did a bit more shopping (Hoi An was a really safe place, we could shop at night in pairs or groups) and went back to our hotel, which was really cute.
We drove to the Marble Mountains, which are just outside of Hoi An. There are 5 mountains representing the different elements- water, fire, metal, earth, air. The mountains are important in a religious context (they are home to many temples and pagodas), an environmental context (they are extraordinarily beautiful) and an historical context, as they were used as a hospital by the Viet Cong in the American war, even though they overlook what was a large American air base. We climbed one of the mountains, and looked at a temple inside a cave. It was very beautiful.
After we vistied Marble Mountain we drove to the grogeous Hoi An beach. Some people went for a swim, but because it was cool some people just relaxed on deck chairs and soaked in the scenery. I was one of the deck chair crowd. It was a beautiful beach, far quieter than the beach at Nha Trang.
After that we drove back to Hoi An for lunch at Li’s Cafe and more, yes more, shopping time!!! We picked up our beautiful dresses, and Roz and I got silk kimonos made. We then went on a river cruise, and came back to Hoi An for MORE shopping and dinner. Me, Sophie, Noni, Roz, Zoe and some of the adults did the Vietnamese Cooking School at Li’s Cafe and learnt how to make our favourite dishes from her menu. It was heaps of fun, absolutely delicious (even more delicious because we had made it ourselves!) and a great night out. It was almost 11pm by the time we got back to the hotel though!
We drove from Hoi An to Hue, which was a beautiful drive through a winding, green mountain range with beautiful views of the coast. We stopped at the lovely lan Cove beach for some refreshments before continuing our drive to Hue (pronounced Whey).
In Hue we visited Emporer Tuduc’s tomb (he had 105 wives and no children!). It was gorgeous (oh to be an emporor! What a life!). We then went back into the main city and ate at the Mandarin Cafe, who a friend of Mr Sutherland’s owns and runs. It was very yummy, the cafe is very popular with backpackers so it had lots of Western food. The man who owns it is also an excellent photographer of international acclaim, so there were plenty of beautiful photos of Vietnam along the walls to look at.
We then visited the Imperial City, from when Vietnam was ruled by the Emporors. It was very beautiful and interesting, but unfortuntely nearly all of it had been destroyed in the American war, so there were only a few buildings left.
We then visited a beautiful pagoda with spectacular views of the Perfume River.
We went to a tropical garden restaurant for dinner, the food was OK but nothing compared to what we ate at Li’s!!!
Hue was an interesting place because it is the centre of anti-government action. There is still a lot of conflict in Hue even today (we weren’t allowed to visit one pagoda or the Cathedral because of government laws), and it showed that Vietnam still hasn’t really recovered from the war.
We drove from Hue to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the 5km each side of the 17th parallel where Vietnam was divided following the French War. This area was a place of major fighting during the American war. It was beautiful and peaceful countryside and it was hard to believe that so much conflict had occured there. We learnt about the war, and visited the Rockpile, where an American airbase was stationed, and a bridge that was a part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We visited the Highway 9 Cemetary, a cemetary of Viet Cong graves. We then drove to Dong Hoi through beautiful countryside, with green rice paddies. Dong Hoi was totally bombed to the ground during the war, with only the partial shell of the cathedral left standing. The city has now been rebuilt. We spent a bit of time at the beach, and then had a very mediocre dinner before boarding the more comfortable, but still squished, overnight express train to Hanoi. (At least it had a Western toilet, the other train only had a squattie!!!)
After an Ok train ride (much more comfortable than the other train) we arrived in Hanoi at 6am. We went to the central lake for a wake up walk, where we observed the Vietnamese people doing their morning exercises. The lake was very beautiful. We then walked to our hotel.
Later that morning, after some very much appreciated showers, we visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where we observed a very waxy and creepy preserved Uncle Ho. Many people swore that they saw him move, and it was a highly debated topic trying to decide if it was actually Ho or a wax model of him.
We then visited his very nice, but simple house, and other important buildings. We then visited the very very contemporary Ho Chi Minh Museum. If it wasn’t for the expert guidance from our history teachers we would have had no idea what the place was all about! it was very different, but I enjoyed it’s originality. it was a very different representation of Vietnamese history, that’s for sure!!!
We then had free shopping time and lunch in Hanoi where we went crazy buying the cheap CDs (only 10000 dong each!!!!) and DVDs.
We then went to the Womens Museum which was very interesting. We also visited another pagoda (they are beautiful, but it was starting to get to the stage where we had seen enough of them!).
We then went to the Water Puppets. What an experience! We now know why the history teachers won’t go in with us!!! It was cute for the first 5 minutes, but extrememly boring for the next 55!!! A lot of people fell asleep and some of the parents who were with us went to the toilet but never came back in!!!
We then went back to the centre of Hanoi and did some more shopping, and ate dinner. We had the best pancake of our lives!!!! Mmmmmmmmmmmmm!!!!
We visited the War Museum in the morning, which was a bit more traditional than the Ho Chi Minh Museum, and then we visited the Temple of Literature, one of the oldest universities in the world. It was where the mandarins studyed to become governament officials. We had a bowl of Pho Ga before heading off on our drive to Hoa Binh.
Hoa Binh was a small village, surrounded by Hill Tribes. It also had a Hydroelectricity plant. We took a boat trip on the dam, and stopped at a very steep hill, which we had to climb. When we reached the top there was a hill tribe villiage which we explored. We were invited into one of the homes. It was really interesting to see the way that they Hill Tribe people lived. The children were gorgeous, and although they couldn’t speak a word of English, very friendly. We seemed to gather a crowd of them as we moved through the tribe!! Getting down the mountain was very difficult because it was really steep and the soil was loose.
We then went back to our hotel where we ate a delicious hill tribe dinner. We went to a music and dance show where we were offered rice wine. Some of the performers had already drunk far too much, and kept on bursting out laughing. Two of them were totally pissed, and the other performers were not happy. We kept on bursting out laughing and one guy was encouraging us to drink more and more rice wine. They had to refil the big container because one guy drank so much. It was getting really crazy and Tran our guide (our absolutely fantastic, totally funny, totally cute guide) was saying “That’s enough, time for bed”. It was crazy!!!!!!
Our rooms at the hotel were built like hill tribe houses and were really cute, and really spacious. There were lots of ants though, but they weren’t in our beds so it didn’t really bother us!!
We drove back from Hoa Binh to the hustle and bustle of Hanoi in the morning. We had free shopping time, and Roz and I went to the really really busy Shoe Street and got some shoes made. We ate lunch, shopped some more, and then went to the Revolutionary Museum. It was interesting, but were kicked out before we had finished looking because they were closing. We walked around and had a look at the beautiful Hanoi Opera House. We then went back to the hotel to get prepared for our final dinner. We dressed up in our new dresses, with our shoes and bags. Everyone looked great. The guys wore their suits, but they didn’t have any matching shoes, so they were wearing these gorgeous suits with sneakers or thongs, it looked so funny!!! We caught taxis to le Tonkin, one of Hanoi’s best restaurants, where we ate a huge a delicious meal. It was sad because it was our last night in Vietnam, and everyone made speeches and all the girls were almost crying, but we still had heaps of fun and had a delicious meal. We went back to our stinky hotel. The hotel we stayed in at Hanoi wasn’t very good!!!!
On our last morning in Hanoi and Vietnam we visited the Hermann Gmeiner orphanage School. The school is a private school with both children from the neighborhood who pay fees, and children from the attached orphangae school. I really admired what the school was doing and how it worked.
When we arrived at the school and walked through the gates we were greeted with a drum fanfare. Then a cavalcade of “Young Pioneers” (school children in the North of Vietnam, they wear a red neck scarf as part of their uniform) came running out to greet us. They gave us a rose each (I ended up with 3!!!) and tied a red neck scarf around our necks!! It was really surprising, we hadn’t expected anything like that!!
We then went in to the assembly hall where we were applauded for absolutely no reason other than being Aussies, and were treated to a singing and dancing show by talented and very cute students. At the end they held up the name of their school with letters, and one little girl had the letter E back to front, it was so cute!!! We then responded with a very unprepared nasal sounding version of “Give Me A Home Amoung the Gum Trees”. We toured the school and learnt more about it. We left a huge pile of presents for children in the orphanage.
We then went back to Hanoi for some last minute shopping and lunch. It was frenzied shopping trying to get all the last minute things we wanted with so little time left!!!!
We then drove to the airport to catch our flight to Saigon, and in Saigon we caught our flight back to Melbourne. I was happy to be going home, but sad at the same time. I would have liked to have stayed a few more weeks!!!!